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Elkington, John Simeon (1841–1922)

by Norman Harper

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Simeon Elkington (1841-1922), by unknown photographer

John Simeon Elkington (1841-1922), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1204

John Simeon Elkington (1841-1922), professor of history, was born on 22 November 1841 at Rye, Sussex, England, eldest son of John Elkington, then a woolstapler, and his wife Marian, née Smith. He migrated to Victoria with his parents in 1848. He was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, matriculating in 1862, and at the University of Melbourne, where he graduated B.A. with first-class honours in history and political economy in 1866 (M.A., 1874; LL.B., 1884).

In July 1866 Elkington was appointed second-class inspector of schools under the Common Schools Act; he served in most parts of the colony for over a decade. In his reports he was critical of educational standards in country schools and strongly advocated compulsory education. In 1876 he joined the university as lecturer in history and political economy and, when Dr W. E. Hearn became dean of the law school in 1879, was appointed for life as professor of history and political economy. He was the first Australian-educated scholar to be appointed to a chair. He retired by agreement on 1 March 1913.

In a small professorial board, Elkington's ebullience and sharp tongue caused occasional personality clashes, one of which led to his suspension for a month. He was elected for his only term as president in 1886. He was distinguished chiefly as a teacher, lecturing in ancient, British and constitutional history (his main subject), history of the British Empire and political economy. Most Victorian lawyers for a third of a century sat at his feet and were influenced by his views, for he was an intense political partisan and a 'Freetrader of Freetraders'. A gifted raconteur, he 'interspersed the dry facts of historical research and economic argument with anecdotes and stories' whose Rabelaisian quality had to be censored when women students entered the university. His lectures changed little after 1887.

Elkington was well read but his own research was minimal. 'I have work in hand, but I have not committed myself to anything very extensive in book form so far', he told the royal commission on the university in 1903. He published only a handful of articles, mainly on constitutional history. His opportunities for research were limited by his involvement in non-university affairs. He practised law for eleven years and was active in civic matters, serving on the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital Committee in 1881-85. His interest in social problems arose partly from the physical handicap of a club-foot. Gregarious by nature, he attracted interesting people: 'he has known everybody and is full of anecdotes and incidents about the leading men in Victorian life'. Bankruptcies in 1892 and 1895 after speculating in land and mining, as well as his inordinate thirst, created problems for the university.

On 28 December 1867 at St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, he had married Helen Mary, sister of W. R. Guilfoyle. She died in 1897 and on 13 April 1903 at St John's Church of England, Lilydale, Victoria, he married her sister Charlotte Corday Guilfoyle. Elkington suffered from diabetes for some thirty years before his death on 6 June 1922 at his Canterbury home. Buried in Melbourne general cemetery, he was survived by two sons of his first marriage, the elder being John Simeon Colebrook Elkington.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • Education Dept (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • Royal Commission on University of Melbourne, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1903, 2 (20), p 83
  • Alma Mater (University of Melbourne) 1 (1895), no 4, 7 (1962), no 2
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 Dec 1889
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Sept 1909
  • register of careers (history section, Education Dept, Melbourne)
  • University of Melbourne Archives.

Citation details

Norman Harper, 'Elkington, John Simeon (1841–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elkington-john-simeon-6100/text10451, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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